PR disasters driving CEOs to embrace social media

social media budget

Join host Sheelagh Caygill as she explores the obvious - and less obvious - trends and influences in communications, PR, and marketing. Also explored are writing and upping your game as a creator of prose. In this essential listen, she interviews senior comms pros and thought leaders to reveal insights you can incorporate into your work.

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This article is an refined version of the episode transcript

Rapidly changing public and employee expectations mean CEOs must start using social media to ensure they express the right sentiment at the right moment.

The West has gone from a situation where most executives were afraid of using social media for fear they might make some kind of mistake.

“In recent times, especially since Trump and particularly since COVID-19, we’ve reached the point where fear of being absent from social media -especially if something goes wrong with their company – that fear of being absent is greater than the fear of being there and making a mistake, which was part of their initial reluctance,” explains Bob Pickard, author of a chapter in a new book about CEOs and social media.

The Social CEO

The book, The Social CEO: How Social Media Can Make You a Stronger Leader, has been written by Damian Corbet. Bob’s chapter is titled How PR Disasters are Driving CEOs to Embrace Social Media.

“The embrace has been fully informed by the current tides of opinion in the marketplace,” adds Bob.

When something goes wrong with a company or a complex organization, like a government or a non-profit organization, all eyes go online looking for the leader, and that’s why the leader has to be on social media. They have to orchestrate, communicate, and relate to people right from the start of any incident.

Bob Pickard

Unfamiliar with social media

“To most executives, this is a relatively new area of endeavor. Many executives, particularly the more experienced ones, were brought up in a world of control, a world of hierarchy, a world of deference,” explains Bob.

“It’s not like we could wave a magic wand and change the way that they’ve been thinking for their entire career about how it is that they should communicate with people,” he adds.

Some (CEOs) expect that they’re going to be sitting on top of the commanding heights of information, broadcasting their views to an appreciative audience of people who will just passively consume whatever they say.

New expectations, new ways of communicating

“All of a sudden, rewiring your mind to deal with peer-to-peer horizontal communication where people expect to be listened to and demand have their voices heard, that’s not for everybody,” says Bob. “That’s not the career experience of many executives. It’s something they’ve got to wrap their heads around and deal with.

“We’ve done some research here in Canada . . . the public now expects the chief executive to communicate about the activities of the company which they lead, especially if something goes wrong, such as a crisis. It’s not really optional anymore. This is going to become mandatory for executives to signal their leadership online through social media.”

The Trump effect

Donald Trump’s use of social media in 2016 was a digital disruption that broke through earlier resistance. A lot of executives looked at how Trump was elected President of the United States, basically, by running and emoting his campaign through a Twitter feed.

“They didn’t want in most cases to be like Trump. In fact, I think the majority would be horrified to be like that,” notes Bob. “They did watch the case study of his undeniable and unexpected success, feel the power of social media for the very first time in terms of driving real incomes.”

Before then, a lot of CEOs regarded social media as a waste of time, assuming it was frivolous, where they would tweet about what they had for breakfast that morning. But the power of social through the Trump case study really galvanized people to go out there and give it a try.

I don’t know how many conversations were started 2016 and 2017 by executives, fearing that they were being left behind and weren’t using the most powerful communications tool in the corporate public relations arsenal.

Bob cautions that even with CEOs using social media, any executive communications should be carefully calibrated in concert with an overall corporate communication plan.

A broader perspective needed

A content analysis of the CEO tweets reveals that most talk about ‘me’ and ‘I’. But, notes Bob: “Most of these executives would do far better if they were to talk about ‘we’ or ‘us’ and align what they’re talking about with the sensibilities of their target audience in the broader public constituency, online through social media. That is not easy. That is hard.

“It takes experience and it takes a team, an entourage sometimes, where you’ve got internal corporate comms people, you’ve got an agency advisor, or a coach . . . This all has to be done in concert with a system or a process that has to be hammered out.”

Everyone’s talking about authenticity these days

Some (executives) didn’t get the top job because they were so nice . . . or wonderful people. Some got the top job because they were politically calculating, with sharp elbows, or in some cases, backstabbing. Whether authenticity is the friend of some of these CEOs – I don’t know. What I’m describing will support the idea that we should be looking for a different model of ideal leadership, so that people who can communicate authentically the way they really are, so they are the ones in the top jobs and not some of these other kinds of people.

When it comes to being authentic, Bob’s advice to his clients is “To be yourself at your best to get what you want through real time leadership on social media.

“There should be a strategy here, a framing exercise where we look at the executive and decide what it is about that person we can authentically and transparently communicate into the public domain in a way that makes sense for him or her and supports the company’s achievement of very specific communications and business objectives,” explains Bob.

The stakes are high

There should be communication by a CEO that is just off the cuff or on the spur of the moment. This this kind of communication has such power.

“My friend Nik Nanos (Nanos Research) did a public opinion poll and found that social media is the number one most dangerous form of media among all other channels when it comes to posing a threat to destroying somebody’s image, whether it’s a person or an organization,” points out Bob.

“A CEO using social media to build an image – That’s just great. But let’s not forget that if it’s not used properly, the same CEO can stumble and fumble on social media in a way that completely utterly destroys their reputation.

Out-of-date-consulting

Bob says he that a CEO’s lack of understanding of social media can often impede coaching initiative. However, the comms team or external agency may be partly responsible for this.

“There’s a lot of very out-of-date PR consulting going on. I won’t go so far as to label it malpractice, but if you look at the PR firms at their state-of-the-art best, providing counsel in this area, I think some of them just aren’t able to do it,” he observes.

There are still PR firms handing out advice about issuing holding statements or doing things that are kind of 1999 vintage in terms of how they should deal with the situation.

The whole concept of a leader on social media – it means that if a incident or issue occurs, they can strike the right chord in the “now”of public opinion; but this still doesn’t happen in many cases.

“In many cases, we get the legally carefully parsed statements that have weasel words or corporate speak coming out or stuff like ‘We take these matters very seriously’.

“That’s not good PR advice that an agency should tell a company. I think people can see through that kind of, you know, hollow plastic, communications contrivance.

Bob says he’s attended numerous meetings where a chief executive is there also, and expected to make a decision on how to proceed. But they don’t want to move forward because they don’t want to be embarrassed in front of their subordinates with the perception that they’re ignorant about something that’s so au current.

You can read the riot act to a chief executive and tell them that if they don’t embrace social media and signal their real time leadership online, they will be at risk of needlessly squandering what could be a tremendous opportunity to build a very high value reputation capital for their company. You need to use tough talk based on fear of what could go wrong and hope for what could go well, and the way to do it is in private.

Where does this leave internal comms?

Everything (a CEO) says or does is within the capture radius of a smartphone. So this really does affect the role of the corporate communicator.

“This increases our importance,” emphasizes Bob. “And I can’t think of a day in my long PR career where what we do for a living hasn’t been more important than it is today. So hopefully we will be able to persuade the c-suite and be able to command the resources so that we can take our own industry to the next level.”

What should a CEO say in a crisis?

“It’s a standard checklist and it doesn’t need to be a long, time-consuming one. It should be: Am I the right one to say this? What is the right way to say this? If so, when should I say it? What is it that I should say? And through what methods?,” explains Bob. “That that takes a few seconds to figure out? And if the answer is no, well, that so be it.

While CEO’s using social media have to use extreme caution. Bob cites some examples where the public were forgiving in the context of wider circumstances.

Sometimes emotion isn’t a bad thing

“Look at the Michael McCain (CEO of Maple Leaf Foods) tweets on Trump,” he notes. “He unleashed on Trump and basically blamed him for what happened with the shooting down of that Iranian jet aircraft which included the death of one of his own employees. PR conventional wisdom says whatever you do, make sure you don’t use the company account, use your personal account.

“He just went ahead and used the company and he spoke in emotional terms. I could tell and people could tell this fellow was grieving. He was angry. He was upset, but he was grieving the loss of somebody he probably knew,” explains Bob.

And I think even though he attacked a sitting president . . . I think he got a pass because people could see the emotion was raw, the sentiment was authentic and sincere. And so what if you use the company account? It’s nice to see CEOs for change communicating like real people, humans with feelings, not like machines or robots or key message contraptions.


Show notes

Fine Bob Pickard on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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